Memories of Bomber Command

This year I have been volunteering with the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC). This charity, based in Lincoln UK, was “created to provide a world-class facility to serve as a point for recognition, remembrance and reconciliation for Bomber Command” and officially opened in 2018 as part of the RAF centenary celebrations. My role involves carrying out audio interviews with World War II veterans who now live in the Auckland region of New Zealand.

Image 3(photo courtesy of IBCC)

My interest in military aviation stems from having edited Geoffrey Guy’s War, my late uncle’s memoir about his experience as a photographic reconnaissance pilot in World War II (see here for a detailed summary and review). That led me to read some of the many other books about the conflict, and go to a local airport to take a trial training flight; one of the peak experiences of my life.

By a combination of skill, hardiness, and good luck my IBCC interviewees had not only survived the war, but lived to an advanced age; they were at least in their mid-90s and the oldest was 100. Several had flown in Lancasters as pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator or gunner. As the photograph shows, these operations also involved a large number of ground staff. I have not interviewed any of these, but they played an essential role.  Another man in my group was a pilot with the Pathfinder force, dropping flares to mark the targets for bombing. The only woman I saw had served in the WAAF, processing the photographs taken during the raids to show which targets had been hit. Many of the men continued in aviation work after the war, and one of them was chosen for the role of a pilot in The Dam Busters movie. They felt great pride in their service as evidenced by all the books, photos and memorabilia in their rooms. Even those whose memories were failing were immediately able to recall their service numbers.

Personal anecdotes were many and varied: Being shot down in a bombing raid over Germany, and spending the rest of the war in a POW camp after a failed attempt to escape through a tunnel. Parachuting into occupied France, and managing to cross over the mountains into Spain, disguised with the help of local people. Performing a slow roll in the Gypsy Moth used for training, in deliberate defiance of the order “No aerobatics”, and getting himself and the aircraft smothered in hot oil. Managing to fly home safely after the navigator of his two-seater Mosquito lost consciousness.

They described some gruelling events with calm detachment, often with humour, and obviously had no doubt that their service had been worthwhile. Patriotism, camaraderie and the love of flying must have sustained them through the years of extreme hardship, challenge and loss. Bomber Command has been criticised because its operations caused the deaths of German civilians, and a few interviewees expressed regrets about this, but regarded it as unavoidable: “It was them or us”.

As a former psychiatrist I am interested in the mental and physical disorders that can affect military personnel. I touched on this topic in an earlier blog post and in my short novel Blue Moon for Bombers. Even a couple of my IBCC interviewees, a highly resilient group who did not develop any major problems, spontaneously mentioned symptoms such as nightmares persisting for some years after the war ended.

It is a pity that this work could not have been carried out before now. The quality of some recordings is compromised by the frailty of the aged participants. Other veterans who might have been included are too unwell to take part or have already died. But better late than never, and when they have been uploaded to its website, these veterans’ interviews will contribute towards the IBCC’s aim of “ensuring that generations to come can learn of [Bomber Command’s] vital role in protecting the freedom we enjoy today”.

Diary: Happy Sunday

This post about a day in my life was written mainly as a record for myself, and may or not be of interest to anyone else.

Daylight saving in New Zealand ended yesterday and so I got up even earlier than I usually do on Sundays, to catch the ferry into downtown Auckland for choir rehearsal before Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral. It was going to be a full day, as I had been asked to give a reading at the SPCA‘s annual Blessing of the Animals service at St Matthew’s in the City in the afternoon. And then, if I was back home in time, go to a tea party at our neighbour’s house.

I had had a migraine the day before; not the terrible kind I used to get when I was younger, confining me to bed with a bursting headache and repeated vomiting, but bad enough to make the simplest tasks seem like onerous burdens. Every cloud has a silver lining and, after recovering from one attack, there is always at least a week before the next. So despite missing an hour’s sleep, I was migraine-free on the Sunday and able to enjoy all the activities planned for the day.

Choir promised to be a challenge because along with two traditional items from our repertoire, Almighty and Everlasting God by Orlando Gibbons and Jesu Thy Blessed Name by Douglas Mews, we were to give our first performance of Oh For the Wings of a Dove by Felix Mendelssohn. There are only three of us in the alto section and our part is not very easy. But if we did make any mistakes I think they would have passed unnoticed by the congregation as they listened to the beautiful soprano solo and organ accompaniment of this piece.

Mass finished quite early so I had time to sit outside in the spring sunshine and eat my sandwich lunch before walking up to St Matthew’s.

The Animal Blessing Service used to be an even bigger event than it is nowadays, preceded by a procession up Queen St and including larger animals such as donkeys, goats and once even a black bull. Now it is confined to the church itself and dominated by dogs of all shapes and sizes, all apparently having a good time and some barking their heads off. The few cats in their cages kept very quiet. I was unable to bring my dog-share Labrador Ireland, but he would no doubt have caused chaos with his enthusiasm for jumping on top of other dogs and “helping” with my reading.

Animal blessing St Matthews

Besides the prayers and readings we heard three sweet songs from a children’s choir, and a wise and witty address from SPCA’s regional manager about what we could learn from dogs. They never cease to find joy in familiar everyday activities and things, and to show curiosity about new ones. They know the value of long rests, and are not governed by to-do lists. They are free of expectations and blame; if their owners come home late they are simply delighted to see them. They have an endless capacity for love.

After two afternoon teas, first with SPCA colleagues and then with the next-door neighbours, it was home to cook the supper and watch the final episode of Hitler’s Circle of Evil on Netflix. This may sound an incongruous choice, but it is an excellent series which has helped to expand my knowledge about the history of World War II, relevant to the interviews with Bomber Command veterans that I am currently carrying out for the IBCC and will describe in a later post.

The joy of dogs

For three years after the death of Khymer I was without a regular canine companion to walk, but am now having daily adventures on the beach with Ireland – a big black bouncy Labrador.

There is plenty of evidence that dogs are good for the wellbeing of humans. They provide loving companionship, a stimulus to take exercise, and opportunities for social interaction. Dog owners tend to have better physical and mental health than those without a dog, for example lower rates of cardiovascular disease and depression. These benefits as reported in many research studies are undoubtedly real, although they may be over-estimated to some extent because less healthy people are less likely to get a dog in the first place. Dogs have an established role as therapists: guiding the blind, visiting residents in care homes, supporting disabled children and adults, predicting the onset of epileptic fits or hypoglycaemic episodes, even sniffing out the presence of early-stage cancers.

Dogs can also present hazards. Falls are one danger, as I know to my cost: on one occasion when Khymer was forging ahead along an uneven pavement I tripped and broke my arm. Over-enthusiastic dogs often want to run up to strange people, or other dogs, and can easily knock them down. Constant vigilance is required during off lead walks.

Dog ownership is a significant responsibility. Leaving aside the dreadful cases of neglect and cruelty I have seen at the SPCA, many otherwise well-meaning owners leave their dogs alone at home while they are out at work all day, never realising how much they suffer from the lack of company and exercise. An ideal solution, as promoted through charities such as the the Dog Share Collective through which I met Ireland, is linking up such owners with people like myself who would love a relationship with a dog but for various reasons cannot have one of their own.

 

Ireland digging on beach

The building blocks of fiction

There are said to be seven key elements in fiction: character, plot, theme, point of view, setting, conflict and tone. Which comes first when writing a novel? My own current fiction project is based on a theme: how personal identity relates to family background. Though the story is not autobiographical, my interest in this topic was prompted by some recent events in my life which lead me to consider such questions as: How do people respond when faced with a stranger claiming to be a close relative? Or when their own parentage is called into question? Is personality shaped more by heredity or early environment, and can either of these influences be overridden by the exercise of choice and free will? Now that DNA testing and online genealogical databases are so easily available to anyone with an internet connection, more and more people are being faced with questions like these. I am finding the writing process quite hard going, probably because tackling a theme is not the easiest starting-point for a novel, at least not in my hands. It is best for themes to emerge subtly, rather than being thrust down readers’ throats, and sometimes even writers themselves are not aware of them.

There is no right or wrong way to begin creating a book. Some writers are inspired by the setting: a geographical location, social community, a historical period or imagined future. For some the plot is key, whether they work out a detailed outline in advance or see how it evolves as they go along. Some focus on the personality of their characters and the relationships between them. Others pay most attention to style and structure, aiming to create a sense of suspense, conflict, mystery, excitement, romance, wish-fulfilment or whatever is required by fans of the genre concerned.

My own six previous novels were inspired by personal experience of real-life settings: for example my first summer in New Zealand (Carmen’s Roses), and working with patients in an old mental hospital (Overdose). I did not consciously set out to explore particular themes when writing them but, looking back, several themes did emerge: the conflict between orthodox and alternative medicine, illicit romances, and later books contain a hint of the supernatural. They do not fit into conventional genres and were not designed to have mass market appeal, but some readers have enjoyed them enough to post nice reviews online. I have no idea when, if ever, my new novel will be ready for publication but meanwhile details of my earlier books can be found on Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk or Smashwords.com.

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Choice at the end of life

A bill to legalise voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide is currently being considered here in New Zealand. Passionate campaigners both for and against have put forward compelling reasons to support their case. At one extreme are those who believe that human lives are sacred and only God can determine when they should end. At the other extreme are those who believe that each individual has the right to control the timing of his or her own death. Logically it is not possible to agree with both views, but perhaps there is scope for some compromise between them.

The term euthanasia, according to its Greek origin, means a “good death”. Much as I dislike the idea of deliberately ending a life, I do think there is a place for assisted dying for patients who are already finding their situation unbearable, or who wish to avoid likely suffering and loss of dignity in the future. But such cases are a minority. When I was in medical practice I got to know many patients with terminal or incurable conditions, mostly advanced cancer, and I do not believe that most of them would have wanted euthanasia or assisted suicide even if these options were legally available – though I remember a few who did. Similarly, recent surveys have found that many people with severe permanent disabilities have no desire for euthanasia, and are often worried that they might be pressurised into having it if the bill becomes law.

There are some strong arguments against euthanasia, but I think they need to be qualified. Looking at some of them in more detail:

“Euthanasia goes against the sanctity of life and the will of God.” This is the position of the Catholic Church and many other religious traditions. While respecting this belief myself, I do not think it justifies withholding the option of euthanasia from those who hold a different view. For this reason, when an anti-euthanasia submission was recently presented to our local congregation after Mass, I did not sign it.

“There is no need for euthanasia because symptoms and suffering can be so well controlled with modern palliative care.” I disagree with this one. Only a minority of dying patients have access to specialist palliative care. Even with the best of care, there are a few terminally ill patients whose symptoms and suffering cannot be relieved. And what about old people who may not have any specific life-limiting disease but would welcome death to release them from weakness and frailty, aches and pains, failing physical and mental faculties, loneliness and lack of purpose?

“Euthanasia may be undertaken too lightly, and against patients’ real wishes.” This is a real risk. Some people will feel obliged to request euthanasia to avoid being a burden to others. Well-meaning medical staff can judge that some patients’ lives are not worth continuing, when the patients themselves might disagree. This can also apply to the withholding of life-sustaining treatment, which could be called passive euthanasia. I have just read It’s Not Yet Dark, a memoir by the late Irish film maker Simon FitzMaurice. He describes being discharged from a hospital without being offered home ventilation because doctors had assumed that someone with his diagnosis, namely motor neurone disease, would not want their life prolonged. In his case they were quite wrong, and he was able to obtain a ventilator and spend several more worthwhile years with his family. A less informed and articulate patient could not have achieved this.

“There could be deliberate abuse.” Going further down the “slippery slope”, legalised euthanasia could provide a cover for murder. Family members might want to dispose of a sick or elderly relative, in order to make their own lives easier, or to get hold of an inheritance. Euthanising incurable chronic patients, who require expensive and time-consuming care, could be said to enable the more efficient use of scarce health care resources. Recent history has shown the potential for mass killings by authorities in the name of racial cleansing or medical research.

“There can be psychological damage to the staff involved.”  The same applies to clinicians carrying out abortions, and veterinary surgeons putting animals to sleep. There is certainly scope for conflict and distress when those trained to preserve life are called upon to end it, depending on whether they believe they are doing the right thing, and on the method used. Prescribing a fatal quantity of drugs, for the patient to take at a time of his or her own choosing, would seem a less harrowing experience for a doctor than administering a lethal injection – although the end result would be the same. Besides affecting staff, unnatural deaths can have a deep impact on the family and friends of the deceased. Consenting to euthanasia of a sick pet, and hearing about the suicide of a colleague, have counted among the most distressing events in my own life.

In summary my own view is that euthanasia and assisted suicide can be justified occasionally, though literally as a last resort, on condition that the patients concerned have given informed consent; if other treatment options have been carefully considered and excluded; if clinicians with religious or ethical objections are not obliged to take part, and if there are safeguards against abuse of the system. I suspect that many people who support euthanasia in theory might sign up in advance when still in reasonable health, then decide not to go through with the option when it actually came to the point – but having a sense of control is a very important aspect of coping with illness, and I believe patients should be allowed that choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Medical cannabis

Access to medical cannabis is tightly restricted here in New Zealand, and progress towards a more liberal approach is slow. I understand that doctors are allowed to prescribe Sativex on an individual basis for such conditions as advanced multiple sclerosis or intractable epilepsy, but that many are reluctant to do so, and that patients have to meet the high cost of the product themselves. And following a recent law change, people with terminal illness can now use home grown cannabis without fear of prosecution for themselves or those who supply them. But using cannabis outside of these circumstances still carries heavy penalties; according to the police website, these range from a $500 fine for possession to a 14 year jail term for supply or manufacture. This despite the fact that cannabis, with its analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, anticonvulsant, antispasmodic, anxiolytic and sedative effects, has been used for healing purposes for thousands of years and is now legal in many other parts of the world. Cannabis oil can be taken by mouth, inhaled, or applied to the skin.

My personal interest in this topic began in an unusual way. Unlike many students I never tried cannabis at university, because I moved in fairly conventional circles and also had an aversion to smoking. Then last year I was intrigued when a homeopath suggested that Cannabis sativa would be a good remedy for me. Shortly after this I came across a series of online documentaries called The Sacred Plant promoting the value of cannabis for treating cancer, epilepsy, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, other autoimmune disorders, and AIDS. While this series was focused on the benefits of cannabis, with minimal discussion of any potential downside, it convinced me that this plant has huge medicinal potential and has been unfairly stigmatised. Heavy recreational use can certainly be harmful especially for adolescents, but it seems wrong to criminalise sick people who are seeking the plant’s therapeutic effects.

Formal research on patient populations has been hampered by the legal constraints but there are some published clinical trials, besides many laboratory studies and a wealth of anecdotal evidence, supporting its use. The National Cancer Institute in the USA has produced an excellent review, including a detailed version for professionals and a simpler one for patients, not limited to the cancer setting. Cannabis can alleviate symptoms of pain, nausea and vomiting (including that caused by chemotherapy), lack of appetite and weight loss, anxiety and insomnia. Importantly, it also has potential for treating the disease which underlies these symptoms. Like any effective drug cannabis can have unwanted effects and interactions, but these usually seem to be mild in comparison with those of many orthodox medications.

Two main constituents of Cannabis sativa are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). Both have medicinal properties but THC is mainly responsible for the “high” sought by recreational users, whereas CBD has minimal psychoactive activity and can be freely purchased over the counter in many countries including UK, Australia and many states of America. The plant also contains hundreds of other chemical compounds, found in varying proportions in the seeds, leaves and stalks and depending on which strain is used, and there is still much to learn about how its extracts can best be prepared and used medicinally.

My own health is reasonably good but I do have a few medical problems of a kind that could be helped by CBD, and am tempted to buy some on my next overseas trip. But I doubt it would get past the clever beagle dogs who patrol Auckland Airport to sniff out illicit drugs.

Cosy Crime?

Assigning their books to the most suitable categories in online databases is an important part of marketing for self-published authors. People looking for new reading material often search under these categories, but will be disappointed if the content of what they get is different from what they expect. Several different categories would often seem equally appropriate for the same book. Determining which of them will achieve optimum exposure on Amazon is a complex process, and there are websites giving expert advice.

In my own experience I have found that classification of non-fiction books is usually quite obvious, but finding the best category for novels – many of which could be described as “cross-genre” – is more challenging. Thinking back to my medical career, it reminds me of the difficulties faced by doctors who are required to give diagnostic labels to that large number of patients who are clearly ill but whose symptoms do not match any officially recognised disease.

Taking crime, mystery and detective fiction as an example, classification systems such as BISAC (an acronym for “Book Industry Standards and Communications”) include many different divisions and subdivisions. Both as a reader and a writer I find it somewhat overwhelming to have so much choice, though I realise the development of these subject headings is based on extensive market research.

A code I have avoided up till now is the one called “cosy” (UK) or “cozy” (US). I feel this term sounds uncomfortably twee and – given that books about murder are designed to entertain – that it goes too far towards trivialising such a serious topic. The phrase “cosy crime” is surely an oxymoron, though perhaps this is the key to its appeal. Some “cozies” – an even more irritating name – are far too whimsical for my taste. But a recent conversation with a writer friend prompted me to Google descriptions of the genre, and I found that it was broader than I realised. According to the entry in Wikipedia, typical features include:

  • an amateur detective, usually female
  • a closed community setting such as a village or a house party
  • murder by a non-violent method such as poisoning, often occurring off stage
  • murder motivated by greed, jealousy or revenge, often rooted in the past
  • little or no sex
  • emphasis on character and plot rather than action
  • a thematic element relating, for example, to pets or hobbies (BISAC has introduced the subdivisions of general, cats and dogs, crafts and culinary)

Most of the books by the great Agatha Christie meet these criteria, and they are now classified as “cosy” – though I think this gives quite the wrong impression, a view apparently shared by her great-grandson James Prichard, who administers her estate. What other term would be better – “traditional” perhaps?

My own novel Fatal Feverfew, a rather lightweight and old-fashioned murder mystery set in England’s west country, fits well into the cosy genre as described above. A while ago one reader gave this book a negative review, and I think this was partly because I had referred to it as medical fiction and it did not align with her conception of that genre; medical crime novels are usually more graphic and dark. I have now moved Fatal Feverfew into the cosy category on Amazon and Smashwords, and hope this will help it reach an appropriate target readership.